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How Justin Timberlake and Al Green saved the Grammys

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After close to three decades of Grammys duty, Ken Ehrlich is a hard man to rattle. But on Sunday, the executive producer had a few choppy hours where he faced the biggest show-day crisis in the history of "music's biggest night."

There's been plenty of rumors and speculation about the incident that led Chris Brown and Rihanna to cancel their respective performances at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, but for Ehrlich the only priority Sunday was filling chunks of suddenly empty airtime on an international broadcast that is planned down to the second.

"It was about 1 p.m. on Sunday, we were doing dress rehearsals and we had just finished up with Stevie Wonder and the Jonas Brothers when I got the call that Rihanna had been in a car accident -- that's how it was described to me -- and I was told that she was at the hospital being examined and that she wasn't going to be coming to the show."

Ehrlich was sitting with industry veteran Johnny Wright, the manager for the Jonas Brothers as well as a guiding force in Justin Timberlake's career dating back to the 'N Sync days. "I hung up the phone and I looked at Johnny and said, 'I think we're going to need some help.' " Twenty minutes later, word came that Brown was out too. "At that point, I didn't care why they weren't coming, all I knew is I had two holes in the show, one of them in the first act of the show, right after U2's opening performance. I knew we were in trouble."

Ehrlich and Wright made a beeline for Timberlake's dressing room. The young singer has a reputation as a trouper who's willing to pitch in, which is why in 2007 he agreed to perform on the Grammys show with the amateur winner of an "American Idol"-style audience vote and, perhaps, why he also found himself sharing a Super Bowl halftime stage with Janet Jackson on an ill-fated evening in 2004. Ehrlich had even tried to get the garrulous Timberlake to host this year's Grammys but the singer declined. On Sunday night, he came to Timberlake again with a more urgent request.

"I told him I lost two performances and I was in trouble," Ehrlich said, "and he looked at me and said, 'At times like this we all need to pull together -- what can I do?' "

Ehrlich said he could shorten the show by one music number but not two. He and Timberlake agreed that the best idea would be a duet of classic material performed with an elder artist; they sat down and looked at the seating chart. Timberlake said: "Al Green. If Al Green will do 'Let's Stay Together' with me, I can do it." It was almost 2 p.m. and Ehrlich's rehearsals had to be closed by 3:15. The race was on. Ehrlich reached Green's people, who contacted the singer.

(Green's account: "I was in the shower and didn't have anything on, and they said, 'Whatever you have, throw it in the bag and come on,' " Green said backstage to the press during the show. He said he was not given an explanation of the last-minute invite. "We had two hours and 40 minutes to rehearse, come back onstage and change and then go out and do it.")

There were a lot of moving parts and Ehrlich was afraid that, this year, his tightrope might actually snap. A huge challenge was making the number sound good; unlike the 1998 show when an ailing Luciano Pavarotti dropped out and Aretha Franklin filled his spot on “Nessun dorma,” the late change this year was to a completely different song. That created a host of challenges to the sound team.

The final result? There are mixed opinions about the quality of the duet by Timberlake and Green, but all things considered, it was the best half-court shot in the history of Staples Center. "I won't forget this year," Ehrlich said. "I will always smile when I think about it. But I sure don't want to do it again."

-- Geoff Boucher

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

 
Comments () | Archives (12)

wow, this dude must be on the payroll of naras?

Aside from Jay Z and Cold Play, They were The BEST act on the Grammys.. THose are ture professinals, who can pull that off, and sound as if it was planned!!

I agree. Other than the tribute to the Four Tops and Jennifer Hudson's classic performance, the opening act rocked. The Jay Z-MIA disaster was a train wreck indeed.

The Green-Timberlake performance along with Jennifer Hudson's triumphant performance was one of the major highlights of the program. The Jay-Z and MIA debaggle was a total trainwreck and was a waste of airtime.

What, are you people on dope?! It was ALL about Radiohead with the USC marching band. Otherwise, not so much...

Mr Ehrlich could have gotten that Guy Sebastian to step up and fill in, his jammin' is sublime :P

Speaking as a celebrity to other celebrities, Justin Timberlake, Al Green and Jennifer Hudson deserved everything that night. Despite the fact and rumors going around between Rihanna and Chris Brown, they would have also spiced up the show and missed out do to "personal issues" which was a sad shame. My prayers go out to Rihanna and hope she heals well and I also hope Chris Brown learns from this and will be able to fight his own demons.

Peace and Love
Chris Tian

JT is sooo over-rated!! The only reason people think he's a "trouper" is because he just wants to be in the limelight.. longer than his required 15 minutes! The Grammys should have spotlighted and gave the stage to those nominated too like Duffy! Hell, JT performed twice this year and twice before during another year! That is sooo overkill! They would have invited another overhyped and over-rated artist, that's you Beyonce!, if they had a chance! The Grammys are soo "safe" and such a shame!

Jt is anything but overrated. His duet with Al Green was a good start to the program as it was lighthearted and had the Tennessee connection for both singers. Jt is willing to sing with someone who has a stronger voice by comparison, which takes guts. I love JT's voice but it is a softer, more delicate sound than Al Green's deep voicc. JT's other appearance was to sing with TI on TI's song, Dead and Gone, which is a great new rap song. JT always performs like he is enjoying himself and as he has shown on the ESPY awards and SNL, he is an overall performer, song and dance man, comedian and actor.
He has softer voice than Al Green but wasn't afraid to sing with him. Give him credit.

Wow David do you sound really bitter towards JT and Beyonce. I think that Laura had it all right Justin is not afraid to take chances and that is what it takes to be a true star. i find it funny that you think that he only did it to be in the limelight too because if you were reading the article closly it said that Ken asked him to be the host of the Grammys and he declinded. Now why would he do that if he just wanted to be in the limelight? that would have given him more time on air wouldn't it? I think that he is amazing and I would be suprised if one day he was writing your favorite artists songs.

Justin timberlake and Al Greens performance was absolutely wonderful and one of kind.I think it was amazing because i love Al Green and they saved the show from the Rihanna incident .

I think that Jt definetly is one of the wholesome ones. I mean most people or singers probrably would've just said Screw that im not doing this.If im not the in the spotlight,yada yada yada. Jt said sure why not?He didnt do it for the money or anything,he did because he loves the music and loves having a goodtime and to work with someone who like you guys said Has so much of a deeper voice and with so much more credibility then Himself,that takes guts. I agree give the guy some more credit not only does he sound good on albums,he also sounds incredible live.


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